The critical difference between mental strength and resilience, according to a psychotherapist

The critical difference between mental strength and resilience, according to a psychotherapist
Mental strength is a practice where there's always room for improvement.lechatnoir/Getty Images
  • Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
  • She explains that resilience is a defensive strategy for getting through tough times, while mental strength is more of an offensive strategy.
  • If you want to specifically build your mental strength, Morin recommends exercises like writing in a gratitude journal and staying productive by using the 10-minute rule.

I often get emails from people saying things like, "I need to be mentally stronger so I can bounce back from my divorce."

The critical difference between mental strength and resilience, according to a psychotherapist
Amy Morin.Courtesy of Amy Morin

But what they're looking for is resilience, not necessarily mental strength. Resilience can be defined as the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

And while mental strength can also be a key component to getting through tough times, it's not something that should be reserved for hardship. Big mental muscles can help you when life is going well, also.
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So you might think of resilience as a defensive strategy; it helps you get back up after you've been pushed down.

Mental strength is more like an offensive strategy. It might prevent you from getting knocked down in the first place.

The three parts to mental strength

Mental strength has three main components:
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  1. Cognitive: The way you think about yourself, other people, and the world around you is directly linked to your mental strength. As you grow stronger, you learn to train your brain to think differently. You recognize how to reframe unhelpful thoughts and you discover how to replace untrue thoughts with more realistic statements. So when you call yourself names, for example, you can respond with a little more self-compassion.
  2. Emotional: Your emotions affect every decision you make. Mental strength is the key to managing those emotions in a healthy way. That doesn't mean escaping or suppressing those emotions, but instead, it means being aware of your emotions and having skills to regulate emotions so you can be your best.
  3. Behavioral: Mental strength isn't about treating your body like a machine and pushing yourself to your limits just to prove you can endure pain. But it is about challenging yourself. Sometimes that means acting contrary to your feelings — like working out when you don't feel like exercising. Delaying gratification, persevering through discomfort, and persisting toward your goals are all key behavioral components to mental strength.

How to build mental strength

You certainly don't want to wait to build mental strength until the moment you need it. That'd be like lifting weights right before you have to pick up a heavy box. A quick few exercises in the seconds before you need big muscles doesn't really do the trick.

Start building mental strength long before you need to be strong. Not only will it help you get through the hard times, but bigger mental muscles can also help you thrive during the good times too. Fortunately, everyone has the ability to perform mental strength exercises. And no matter how strong you are already, there's always room for improvement.
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While there are tons of mental muscle-building strategies, here are a few simple exercises:

  • Write in a gratitude journal. Gratitude trains your brain to look for the good in the world. This can help ward off self-pity and increase positive emotions.
  • Change the channel in your brain. When you find yourself worrying about things you can't control or rehashing things that cause you to feel bad, get up and do something. Distract yourself for a few minutes with an activity like gardening or listening to music. This can help change the channel in your brain so you can think about something more productive.
  • Motivate yourself with the 10-minute rule. When you're struggling to talk yourself into doing something you don't want to do — like going to the gym — tell yourself you only have to do it for 10 minutes. At the 10-minute mark, give yourself permission to quit if you really want to. You'll likely find that most of the time, you'll choose to keep going because getting started is usually the hardest part.

Incorporate mental fitness into your life

Similar to the way you might go to the gym to work out your body, it's important to invest time into working out your mind. As your mental muscles grow, you'll learn to challenge yourself in ways that will help you reach your greatest potential. And when you're stronger, you'll be more resilient as you'll be confident in your ability to bounce back from whatever hardships you encounter along the way.

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